Conflict Competency in the Workplace

Posted in : HR Updates ROI on 22 January 2014
Mary Rafferty
Consensus Mediation
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How Conflict Competent Are Staff in Your Organisation?

Contrary to what the title might suggest, it’s not about exceling in causing trouble! Rather it’s about accepting the inevitability of conflict in every workplace and the importance of upskilling staff and managers to deal with it effectively. This article will explore what we mean by ‘conflict competence’, why it’s so important in the workplace and the four core skill areas involved. And there is a link to a short online ‘quiz’ to discover your own conflict ‘hot buttons’.

Conflict competence…no it’s not about being competent at getting into situations like the one on the left!

This article will explore what we mean by ‘conflict competence’, some of the core skills involved and why it’s so important in the workplace.

The statistics and why conflict competency is essential

In a 2008 CIPD survey of 660 HR practitioners, almost half found they have to manage conflict at work ‘frequently or continually’, taking on average almost 4 hours per week. Yet almost a third of companies provide no training for staff in this area. Similarly a 2013 CIPD report cited managing difficult conversations to be ‘the most frequent skill gap for front-line supervisors by HR professionals’.

The problem with ‘conflict’ is that it’s a bit of a taboo subject – ideally, one to be avoided, worked around and, with a bit of luck it won’t raise it’s ugly head too often. Yet, a conflict is simply a difference of viewpoints with a bit of emotional attachment thrown in. So whether the project should be done my way or yours could cause conflict, less likely are diverse views as to which hobbies or wine we prefer. In every workplace, where there are on-going and interdependent relationships with a variety of viewpoints on how and what should be done, conflict is inevitable.

If we don’t view it as inevitable, then ask yourself - should most staff/managers be able to do any of the following?

  • Raise issues with a team member or a direct report that could be potentially contentious?
  • Hold others accountable for work tasks agreed and set?
  • Give constructive feedback?
  • Negotiate and influence others with integrity and respect?
  • Be able to integrate a variety of perspectives and viewpoints in problem-solving discussions?
  • Able to use probing questions to get at the essence of what’s being communicated by another person?
  • Be able to play the ball rather than the ‘man’/’woman’ when a disagreement arises

The above list of skills occur daily in many people’s jobs - certainly for those at management level.  They also encompass core skills and knowledge in the area of ‘conflict management’. Most management/leadership courses offer one day or one module on ‘conflict management’ but it’s frequently not considered a core organisational value or competency, to be continuously improved and fostered for all staff. In order to be able to effectively engage with people around issues that need to be talked about, it’s essential to have ongoing support and review of a measurable set of ‘managing conflict’ competencies, just like any other essential components of the job.

What do we mean by core conflict competencies?

Conflict competency as a skill set encompasses a number of different areas:

  • Knowledge and understanding at a theoretical level: We need to learn about the dynamics of conflict so we have an intellectual insight into what’s happening. For example knowing the difference between ‘positions’ and ‘interests’, causes of defensiveness and its link to our identity, how the retaliatory cycle works, the fight/flight response to perceived threats. It can also include knowledge of processes such as Mediation and Fisher and Ury’s (1996) key negotiation tenets.
  • Emotional awareness: This refers to being able to understand and manage our own emotional reactions and being able to tune in to and work with the emotional reactions of others. To what extent are you even aware of your own ‘hot buttons’ the particular actions or behaviours of others that irritate or set you off? 
  • Effective behavioural response and habits: This is about having default constructive responses and behaviours when a conflict situation arises. Note the italics
    • by this I mean that in the stress and ‘heat of the moment’ and not just on a good day, you are able to act in ways that de-escalate rather than inflame the situation. These would include:
      • Listening and reflecting back what you hear rather than arguing back
      • Probing for key needs and interests in a non-judgemental way, prompting if necessary “is it that you think I’m being too pernickety about this?”
        • Pausing to consider and get clarity on our own key needs and interests in a situation
        • Communicate these in a way that is disarming rather than escalating
        • Easily distilling important elements of each side’s key views and issues and framing these neutrally as a problem to be solved o Knowing and managing our own ‘hot buttons’ so we don’t get derailed in tricky interactions and communications with others
        • Able to remain upbeat and optimistic despite a situation not being resolved immediately
  • Conflict competent culture: No man is an island and we are all influenced by the organisational environment. Effective conflict management can only flourish in a culture that fosters pro-active engagement with conflict rather than avoidance strategies. As Thomas Crumm (1987) states ‘It’s not whether you have conflict in your life, it’s what you do with it that conflict that makes a difference’. Avoiding the high costs of destructive conflict means ensuring staff and managers have the skills, knowledge and attitudes to engage with and manage the inevitable conflicts that arise in every workplace.
This article is correct at 06/08/2015

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Mary Rafferty
Consensus Mediation

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